Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Nightmare Alley - A Dark Gem

By 1947, Tyrone Power was an established star best known for his romantic and swashbuckling roles, an extremely handsome matinee idol. However, like many actors since the inception of motion pictures, he wanted to break out and do some serious acting in a serious role. In 1946, he appeared in W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” in the role of Larry Darrell, a young man searching for truth and the meaning of life. This was a good role taken from the pages of great literature, and Power’s first real introduction into a story with depth and dignity. However, it was not enough for Power, who in that same year bought the rights to a novel called “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham. The part that Power wanted to play was that of Stanton Carlisle, a manipulative, sociopathic grifter working in a seedy carnival.

Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox was not happy with the thought of Power playing such a character. He believed that such a dark role would hurt Power’s image. However, Power insisted, and the project got underway in 1947. The film was produced by George Jessel, the vaudevillian who later became known as the Toastmaster General of the United States because of his many roasts of political and entertainment figures. Zanuck decided to back his star with A film treatment. However, he still didn’t approve, gave it minimal publicity and shelved it after the first round of showing. This hurt the reputation of the movie, critics were not kind, and the public barely got a chance to respond because of this negligible handling. I believe that the critics were wrong. “Nightmare Alley” is a marvel of a movie with one of Power’s best performances. It is dark and frightening, depicting the lowest class of man, and one man in particular who uses the vulnerable and the needy to further his own ambitions.

The story begins in a seedy carnival, for which 20th Century Fox built a full, working set and hired real carny workers. Power as Stan is a roustabout and a barker, working for Zeena and Pete in their phony mind-reading act. Zeena (wonderful Joan Blondell) is hard-boiled yet soft-hearted for the pitiable drunk that the once great Pete has become. Pete is played by Ian Keith in what I consider to be an academy-award worthy performance. (Ian Keith’s career spanned a long period, with many of his movies directed by Cecil B. DeMille such as “The Crusades”, “Cleopatra”, “The Sign of the Cross” and “The 10 Commandments”.) The carnival carries a “geek”, an attraction of which Zeena says “lots of performers won’t work in a show that carries one.” Stan is fascinated by the geek, purported to be a wild man, but really only a pathetic alcoholic who actually eats live chickens for a bottle a day and a bed to sleep in. Stan can’t understand how anyone can sink so low. Soon, Stan learns of a valuable code used by Pete and Zeena in their glory days, a code for use in a realistic and mesmerizing mind-reading act. Zeena can sell the code for a great deal of money, but is saving it for her and Pete, partly to pay for “a cure” for Pete’s alcoholism. Once Stan learns of the code, he moves in on Zeena, seducing her in an effort to get the code for himself. After the tragic death of Pete, in which Stan plays a part, Zeena agrees to teach him the code.
Stan and Zeena (Joan Blondell)
Pete (Ian Keith) and Stan

Stan and Molly (Colleen Gray)
Stan betrays Zeena, and marries Molly (Colleen Gray), a beautiful girl who is one of the carnival’s entertainers. Stan wonders aloud why it doesn’t matter to him if he hurts people. He doesn’t know why, but doesn’t have the conscience to do anything about it. Molly is deeply in love with Stan, but Stan sees her merely as window dressing for the new act he designs. He becomes “The Great Stanton” in a nightclub mind-reading act with Molly and the code. He meets Lilith (Helen Walker), a therapist who sees through Stan’s pose and likes it. The mind-reading act is not enough for Stan’s ambition. He goes into the medium game, garnering secrets of Lilith’s rich clients and pretending to be speaking to their dead loved ones. His specialty is rich, grieving, vulnerable people. Molly is horrified at Stan’s phony religious posturing, warning him that he is trying to play God. Stan retorts that a lot of people do so, but Molly says “But they don’t sound like ministers. You do!” Stan doesn’t heed Molly’s warning and continues to use phrases from the Bible, even going so far as to use the words of Jesus in his spiel. Stan finally goes too far, finds that Lilith is really himself in female form, and his downward spiral begins
.
Stan's alter-ego Lilith (Helen Walker)
Stan deceives his rich, sorrowful mark,
Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes)  

Nightmare Alley” is directed by Edmund Goulding, a great director responsible for such films as The Razor’s Edge, The Great Lie, Dark Victory and Dawn Patrol. The score by Cyril Mockridge blends beautifully with this disturbing story, discordant and weaving elements of carnival music throughout. Mockridge was a prolific composer, with some of his better-known films being Cheaper by the Dozen, Desk Set and Bus Stop. Perhaps one of the most marked talents is makeup man Ben Nye, who manages to turn the strikingly handsome Power into a man who has created nightmares for others and finally lives one himself. “Nightmare Alley” is a must-see for classic movie fans. It never got the praise or promotion it deserved, and is well worth the search to find it. (Fox Movie Channel shows it periodically.)


19 comments:

  1. I liked this movie. I have watched it twice. Ty gives a great performance. Most of Goulding's movies are great!

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  2. Becky You know how much I like this film. it's part of Fox's Film Noir series and is on DVD with a few extras.

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  3. Paul, I need to get it on DVD. Right now I only have a VCR tape and it's really old. I'll look for the DVD with extras.

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  4. I have not yet seen this film, but.. it sounds like Tryone Power gave one of his best performances. I will look for it.

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  5. It's very different for Power, but I think you will like it, Dawn.

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  6. Mavis, I hope you get to see it soon!

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  7. Becky, I must admit I've been skittish about giving NIGHTMARE ALLEY a look, because I'm more squeamish than I'd like to admit! :-) However, thanks to your compelling review, I'm gathering up the courage to see it from start to finish!

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    1. Dorian, you really need to see this film your a big girl, you can handle it. It's well worth your time. Everyone I've recommended this film to has thanked me.

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    2. Paul, it's so good to see you here! Of course you know I completely agree with you -- fabulous movie. By the way, you did a long and incredible run with Trivia Time, and boy do I miss it! I haven't seen any of Joann's pictures of the Great Man Flynn and I'm going into withdrawal!

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    3. Becks, both Joann I and our daughter Emma have been under the weather. I've been busy helping Dawn with her new 60's and 70's music blog, and I told Rick that Trivia Time will be back sometime in April Don't worry, Joann has hundreds of Flynn photo's she has not posted , like a whole CDR's worth.

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  8. Dorian, it's a true classic, and I think it is worth fighting off your squeamish fears to see it! If you do, I'd love to know what you think.

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  9. "Nightmare Alley" was one of my late father's favourite movies. I find depths to the story that make it endlessly fascinating. I'm so impressed with the performances that I find it difficult to find words to describe how they affect me. Stanton Carlisle is a con man whose biggest fall guy his himself and Tyrone Power is perfect.

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  10. Well, you know I totally agree with you, Caftan Woman! It was hard to write about the depth of the story and the performances -- I was running out of words, and might have been reduced to WOWEE and SHAZAM! Glad to find a fellow lover in you!

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  11. Becky - I was watching "In Old Chicago" this morning - one of those 20th Century Fox films in which Tyrone Power was cast as the gorgeous somewhat shallow leading man (with Don Ameche, Alice Faye). I was remembering how disillusioned he became because it was so difficult for him to get any sort of demanding role. I've read that Loretta Young was on a film with him early on and became nervous because the camera was on him in close-up more than it was on her - he was that good looking and photogenic (and there weren't many more beautiful than Loretta Young). "Nightmare Alley" was a film he wanted desperately to make so that he could exercise his actual acting ability. He was also convincing in "The Razor's Edge" and "Witness for the Prosecution," two other more serious films. Of course, I can't resist him even in his less dramatic gorgeous-leading-man roles. Great write up on the film Tyrone Power gave the performance he was most proud of.

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  12. Thank you so much for the compliment, Eve. I love this movie, obviously, and it really showed his talent for dramatic roles. Most actors get pretty sick of just being pretty in their roles. I had to laugh at Loretta Young -- Power is a beautiful person!

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  13. Very nice write-up on a unique and unforgettable film. Tyrone had at least one more chance to show his acting "powers", in "Abandon Ship" (1957), a rarely seen gem that should be on DVD.

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  14. Thanks! You are quite right -- Abandon Ship was a wonderful performance by Power. I wonder why it is not shown on TCM more often, or is not as well known? I'm glad you stopped by -- come again!

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